Wales rose to second in the Six Nations table with one round to go after a bonus-point win over Italy on Mothering Sunday at the Principality Stadium.
Although Ireland secured the Championship trophy with a game to spare thanks to a win over Scotland, and England’s subsequent failure to beat France, on Saturday, there is still a hefty amount of prize money for Warren Gatland’s men to play for. Reports estimate the difference between fifth and second to be around £2m.
Gatland had made 10 changes to his starting XV that lost to Ireland in Dublin two weeks ago, with an all-new front row of Nicky Smith, Elliott Dee and Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies starting in the second row, and an all-new back row of Justin Tipuric, James Davies and captain on the day, Taulupe Faletau.
In the backs there was a nod for Gareth Anscombe at fly-half, with Owen Watkin slotting in at outside centre, while George North and Liam Williams joined Steff Evans in the back three. Rhodri Jones, Seb Davies, Ellis Jenkins and Rhys Patchell all came onto the bench.
It was one of the remaining five players who made the first mark on the game though, as Hadleigh Parkes opened the scoring after five minutes.
James Davies secured a turnover in midfield, Taulupe Faletau directed Gareth Anscombe to kick Wales to the corner, and after a few phases of pick-and-go rugby from the forwards, it was the Scarlets centre who ran a lovely line and rolled out of one tackle to score under the posts.
Anscombe added the extras, and was back on the tee two minutes later after a second Welsh try of the game.
Italy managed to win the ball back from the kick-off after the first try, but in their haste to get turnover ball wide a blind pass was easily picked off by Owen Watkin. The Ospreys centre didn’t quite have the legs to go all the way, but stayed patient and eventually was caught up by George North on his outside shoulder for try number two.
A second Anscombe conversion made it 14-0 after six minutes, but with the game threatening to get away from Italy early on, they made it three tries in the opening ten minutes.
Winning a kickable penalty in the Wales half, the Azzurri opted to go for the corner rather than the posts. With the lineout gathered, the visitors set about trying to bash their way over the line with little success.
In the end it came down to two individual pieces of skill, with Marcello Violi faking a kick through which resulted in Liam Williams taking a step back to cover. The scrum-half then fed full-back Matteo Minozzi who beat his opposite number with an extra yard to work with and scored in the corner.
Tomasso Allan nailed the conversion from the touchline, and with the score 14-7 after eleven minutes, the game finally started to settle down.
Italy began to look more confident in possession, their forwards getting a decent amount of success in carrying, but it was Wales who threatened the try line next.
Off first phase ball some good hands in midfield freed Williams and Evans in the wide channels, with the latter chipping a clever kick back in field for the tracking Gareth Davies to collect and score. However, the TMO ruled the scrum-half to be ahead of his Scarlets colleague when the kick was made, and no try was the decision.
As the clock ticked past the mid-point of the first half it was Italy dominating possession and territory, mainly thanks to Welsh indiscipline. However, as has been a problem for the Italians in recent years, they could not turn prime attacking positions into points.
After turning down three kickable penalties they did eventually opt for the posts, only for Allan to miss the opportunity, but Anscombe made no mistake when the chance was presented to him to extend the Wales lead.
With the half drawing to a close it seemed like the hosts would be the next to score, as an offside penalty in midfield saw the Welsh return to the corner. When a further Italian infringement offered a penalty advantage, Anscombe went for the jugular of a cross-field kick.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out, and there was more bad news for Wales as Liam Williams didn’t hear the whistle sounding to bring the play back for the penalty. Thinking the ball was still live he put a hit in on Minozzi, catching the try scorer in the neck, and receiving 10 minutes in the sin bin for his troubles.
That would all be served in the second half, as Italy opted to end the first period there, having forced Wales into making double the tackles of themselves in the opening 40, but not got any real reward for their pressure.
Presumably hoping to turn the screw at the beginning of the second half with the extra man, things did not go to plan for Italy after half-time either, when Wales attacked from a five-metre scrum. Parkes took the first phase up to the line, and Cory Hill was quick enough to get round the corner and take advantage of disorganised Italian defence.
Discipline-wise, things went from bad to worse for Wales despite scoring the try, as Gareth Davies’ deliberate knock-on earned him a yellow card, sending the hosts down to 13-men for a brief period.
However, once again, Italy could not take advantage, losing a lineout and then knocking on in and around the Welsh 22, with Parkes producing a superb clearing kick to take the game back into Italian territory.
Despite being without a scrum-half for 10 minutes, Wales managed to hold onto the ball long enough to ride out being short on numbers, and even threatened the try line. A lovely dink over the top from Anscombe was collected by James Davies with Faletau on his shoulder. Tipuric offered support but Steff Evans spilled possession in the Italy 22.
As the hour mark rolled around, Wales returned to a full compliment of players, and were boosted by a number of substitutions as the likes of Ken Owens, Rob Evans, Rhys Patchell and Aled Davies provided impetus.
Almost immediately they seemed to pay off, as Hadleigh Parkes as setup to blast over from short range, only for the TMO to rule out another score. That only delayed the inevitable though, as from the resulting scrum Rhys Patchell took the ball to the line and offloaded for George North to score his second try of the game.
Leigh Halfpenny took over kicking duties having come off the bench to make the score 31-7, and the win was confirmed with 10 minutes to go, when a relentless attack was finished off by Justin Tipuric scoring in the corner.
There was just time for Mattia Bellini to score a consolation Italian try in the corner, as the game ended with a 38-14 scoreline.
Not a test match that will live particularly long in the memory for Wales, who will no doubt be happy with the scoreline, but failed to really get into the game between 10 and 65 minutes. We looked like a team that had made 10 changes.
There was a number of solid individual performances, with Nicky Smith and Elliott Dee going well up front, the new-look back row functioning well, Hadleigh Parkes adding to a string of impressive outings in the red jersey of Wales, and George North announcing his return to the starting XV in style.
It leaves Warren Gatland with some selection headaches going into the final round of this year’s Six Nations with a home game against France. With a win securing second place it’s a big game for Wales, and a win will end the tournament in a confident manner of two disappointing performances against England and Ireland.